Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Curiosity for Lent

Having grown up in a small town in the mountains of Tennessee, my worldview was largely shaped by the individual faces in our small community.  I had one friend who was Jewish.  One was Catholic.  One who wasn’t aloud to wear shorts because they were too revealing.  Another who actually took her Bible to church.  These differences never caused division – they simply provided the adjectives with which each family was described. 

Friends' distinctive religious celebrations brought a welcome  diversity into a fairly homogenous community.  To attend a bat mitzvah in our little town felt somewhat cosmopolitan.   The cross of ashes worn on the forehead of a few classmates evoked a subtle sense of mystery.  We respected the differences of our faiths.  However, to cross over the line between respecting and learning from one another felt too bold and uncertain.  

As a young adult, my experience of God shifted from one of inherited religion to one of chosen relationship.  Gradually, I began to suspect that I might have something to learn from the different ways in which others encountered, experienced, and worshiped God. I wanted His life, His teachings, and His ultimate death and resurrection to be more than an intellectual assent or a religious practice. I was not longer content to just know about Him.   I wanted to know Him.  

An attempt to move beyond wanting toward knowing came shortly after I graduated from college.  Every Wednesday during Lent, I slipped out of my office at the bank and walked down the street to attend a church service.  The choice in church was not deliberate or intentional - it's location and schedule simply made attendance relatively easy.  Each sermon focused on one of the people involved in the Passion of Jesus. Preparing for Christmas had been an expected part of my annual tradition. Preparing for Easter had not.  Intentionally altering my routine, in order to focus my heart, changed my experience of the season.  It changed me.

As we consider the world in which Jesus walked, he encountered primarily two kinds of people.  Those who held so tightly to their systems of religion and life that they missed Him, and those who were curious enough to follow.  As we embark on the season of Lent, we all bring our childhood history, our adult experiences, our preconceptions, and our annual rituals (or lack thereof) along with us.  Although these bring a sense of tradition and security, I wonder what it would look like if we allowed ourselves to become curious...  

~ Curious about how others commemorate the next 40 days  
~ Curious about the “whys” behind the Lenten traditions practiced by others 
~ Curious enough, perhaps, to slip into a service at a different church, read a new book, or alter our routine in some way to make more room in our hearts for the season ahead.   And ultimately, to make more room in our hearts for the One who came to rescue us from ourselves.

I want to see Him with fresh eyes.  

I didn't grow up in, nor do we currently attend, a liturgical church which formally celebrates the season of Lent.  However, I look forward to the next four weeks with great anticipation. We'll be reading as a family, I'll be reading on my own, and we plan to attend Vespers at a local Abbey.  Our choices will most likely differ from yours, yet the hope is that we all approach this season not with a sense of duty or habit, but with a renewed sense of wonder and curiosity.  


A few suggestions if you’re looking for books:

If you have children, or enjoy reading historical fiction, I’d highly recommend reading Arnold Yuletide’s book, Amon’s Adventure.  Written by the author of the Advent series Jotham’s Journey, each of the 28 chapters is a great read-aloud which provides fodder for rich conversation and reflection.  It paints a vibrant picture of the political, social, and religious climate in which Jesus lived.  Amon's Adventure illuminates the complexity and confusion Jesus' ministry brought to those who loved and were trying to obey Yahweh.  Jesus wasn't what they were expecting. That same tension exists to some level for all of us today.

This year, I have discovered and soaked myself in the writings of Walter Wangerin, Jr.  I referenced the book Miz Lil and the Chronicles of Grace in my “Top 10 List” for 2011, and I’ve been lining up his books in my reading queue ever since.  I started reading this morning.   

Life of the Beloved by Henri Nouwen has become one of those staple books in our library to which I return again and again.

I'd love to hear from anyone who is willing to share books, resources, or traditions that have been meaningful to you during this Lenten season.  You'll be an encouragement to others.  Perhaps you'll peak their curiosity.  Blessings to you and yours.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Valentine's Day Remixed

Happy Valentine's Day!  I feel as though I should be sharing our treasured family traditions - perhaps something crafty, clever, nostalgic or at least a good recipe.  I'm so sorry to disappoint.  I don't have strong feelings about the holiday on either end of the spectrum, and each year, February 14th manifests itself differently around our home.

I do, however, possess some treasured books about the holiday (shocker).  From their pages, we found that St. Valentine's day is a combination of history, tradition, and myth, all mixed together and baked in the oven of capitalistic opportunity. Historically, it's believed that there were multiple Saint Valentines, and three were actually martyred for their faith on February 14th.  There are also beautiful myths telling of St. Valentine, while in prison, falling in love with and healing the jail keeper's daughter.  Notes of love were passed through the jail door, and the legend grew as it was passed through generations.

Our culture's current knowledge and celebration of Valentine's Day bears little resemblance to the holiday's original roots.  Romance, Hallmark cards, and expensive dinners at crowded restaurants have become the icons.  Ironically, most sit-coms on television this year depict couples who are rebelling against the "Valentine's Day rat race", and are contentedly choosing to stay at home.  Regardless of which viewpoint you hold, both stray far from the martyred Saints who suffered under oppressive Roman rule. Our perspective has changed, and we've forgotten the original intent for the day.  Culture changed the story - but it can't change the history.

Whether we like it or not, we're as immersed in our culture as a fish is in water.  We're often unaware of the powerful impact that our generation, as well pervious generations, has had on the lens through which we view marriage.  Marriage was originally created for great purpose. Far greater, I believe, than most of us would dare to hope.  Culture changed the story - but it can't change the history.

What would happen if I suspended my own ideas, hopes, dreams, and fears about marriage, and had the opportunity to view it through the eyes of its Creator? How would the shift in my perspective affect the lens through which I view my husband?  I believe that God holds my marriage in much higher esteem than I can begin to imagine - yes, even with the challenges, failures and disappointments that can arise, He sees it as holy.  

In the C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters, Screwtape (a demon), writes letters to Wormwood (his nephew) educating him on how to secure the eternal damnation of "the patient."  
"Now comes the joke.  The enemy (God) described the married couple as 'one flesh.'  He did not say 'a happily married couple' or 'a couple who married because they were in love', but you can make the humans ignore that... humans can be made to infer the false belief that the blend of fear, affection, and desire which they call 'being in love' is the only thing that makes marriage happy or holy... In other words, humans are to be encouraged to regard as the basis for marriage a highly-coloured and distorted version of something the Enemy really promises as a result."  
How many of us have a distorted picture of marriage?  Remember the fish in water.  It can't possibly know it's wet.  So what is this water in which we're immersed?  Where have we been deceived?

A step to climbing out of the fish bowl and drying off...

God is far more concerned with my holiness than he is with my happiness.  

This is hard, but true, particularly if our hopes were hung on an idealistic picture of what marriage "should be."  The good news is that if (and when) marriage is hard, we should not despair. The Father is up to something, and if you believe in his promises, He is up to something good.  

The measure of a successful marriage is not happiness and lack of conflict - it's mutual selflessness and commitment.  

That's the bad news and the good news.  

More is required of me, but more is promised of Him.

So as we enjoy the Valentine's Day festivities, don't despair if yours is less than what you had hoped.  The Author of all hope has written the story, and the story isn't finished yet.  We don't know what plot twists may unfold as we forge ahead, but we do know that He is good. He cares deeply for His children, and He'll use anything, including disappointments and challenges in marriage, to draw us to Him.

As an aside... I don't think I'll ever look at a picture of the chubby-cheeked scantily-clad cupid again without wondering if I just caught a glimpse of Wormwood himself.

Monday, February 6, 2012

You Are Cordially Invited

Most days, I’m deeply aware of the benefits of our lifestyle.  Schooling at home gives us tremendous flexibility to take advantage of a myriad of rich experiences.  Books read aloud routinely become family friends, and recess often takes the form of digging in the creek or building forts outside.  Fidgety boys take basketball breaks when needed, and my crafty girl creates throughout the day.  I wouldn’t have it any other way.  Usually.

Several weeks ago, I hastily became quite knowledgeable about the admission procedures and tuition for the private schools in our area.   I also paid particular attention to the big yellow bus schedule, and took note that there were plenty of available seats.  My mind began to construct a new schedule for myself – one that included long runs and a home with preordained periods of quiet.  Yes, it was one of those weeks.  And my commentary has nothing to do with school choice.  It has everything to do with the motivation behind all of my, well all of our, choices.

I don’t want to be selfish.  I don’t want to become angry with my kids, short-tempered with my husband, or aloof with my friends.  I want to be more.  I want to be patient, kind, and other-centered.  But last week, I wasn’t having much luck.  And rather than deal with the mounting evidence that I was the problem, I found myself wanting to sweep it under the carpet.  Or more accurately, put it on the bus and send it away.

Voices were competing for my attention and energy.  There were the high-pitched needs of the children, the muted desires of my husband, and the emphatically heated debate between self-justification and self-contempt that raged inside of me.  But somewhere in the midst of the mental and emotional chaos, I heard that still small voice.

I’m inviting you to more.

When your children’s needs outweigh your capacity to give,
I’m inviting you to grow in dependence.

When your tired husband returns from a trip, and you want his help more than you want him,
I’m inviting you to grow in selflessness.

When you’ve been treated unfairly and want to retaliate (or withdraw),
I’m inviting you to grow in kindness.

When customer service eats up half your day then drops your call,
the guy selling pine needles interrupts dinner, 
and the dog ruins the living room rug (again),
I’m inviting you to grow in patience.

When a friend disappoints out of her own insecurities or fears,
I’m inviting you to grow in faithfulness.

When there are mounting bills, 
piles of laundry, 
sick children and weary hearts,
I’m inviting you to grow in joy.

When  you're heartbroken, and even angry, that life doesn’t look like you had hoped,
I’m inviting you to grow in peace.

And lastly…

When you realize that the problem isn’t your needy kiddos (or schooling choice),
Or your husband,
Or your friends,
Or your life situation,
Or those annoying people who interrupt your day,

It’s your own selfish heart,

But I’m not condemning you…
I’m inviting you to grow in love.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Here We Go Again... Parenting Teenagers the Second Time Around

Barely over a mile in, and I’m sucking wind.  So sad.  It’s hard to believe that a few years ago, an exponentially longer run resulted in euphoria, not fatigue. I’ve been moderately sick for a few months and unable to run, so today was the big day.  Despite perfect weather, adequate sleep, and the strategically-timed cup of coffee, I limped along fueled by sheer determination.  I’m tired.

We have five children, ages 8-25, and currently have no teenagers.  Think about it.  Our family makeup could practically be used as a logic riddle.  The last few years have been somewhat of a “golden age” in our home with no little ones awake in the wee hours of the morning, and no new drivers or high school parties requiring late night parenting vigils.   Let me be clear – I love much about the teen years.  The shift from childhood toward maturity, meaningful conversations, pivotal choices, and a glimpse into what their adult life may hold, collectively make this phase of parenting significant.  But as with any worthwhile endeavor, that which is of great value often comes at great cost.  

At one point, we had two teenagers, a pre-schooler, a toddler, and a newborn living in our home.  Our oldest children are now in their early twenties and actually survived their teen years, largely in spite of us. On this side of the “parenting the teenager” journey, I’m increasingly convinced that much of the stress and heartache along the way is largely reflective of the parents, not the kiddos.  That, by the way, is a personal confession.  In hindsight, there is nothing like a normal, healthy teenager to reveal the selfish heart and personal agenda of a parent.  But somehow, we all made it through, and watching our young adults make their way in the world has made it well worth the effort required.

In my 39th year, I confessed to a friend that running a longish race was on my unspoken bucket list.  She didn’t let me stop at a wish, and pledged to run all of the longer training runs with me.  Before I knew it, I had registered for the race, printed out my training schedule, and purchased bright new running shoes.  I had no idea what the next few months would hold, but was fueled by excitement, aspiration, and a meticulously-loaded ipod.    I couldn’t have anticipated the cold, dark, insanely early morning runs or the “gut through it because I only had four narrow windows each week” runs.  But somehow, we made it through, and race day made it well worth the effort required.

As I embark on the familiar territory of starting to run again, you’d think that it would be easier this time.  I know what to expect.  I know my best times of the day to run, and the proper way to eat and hydrate.   I’ve run much faster and further with considerably less effort.  But for some reason, starting over today seemed harder.

During the last several months, it has become clear that it's time once again to lace up our shoes and prepare for parenting the next round of teenagers (the oldest of our younger crowd is twelve).  And as we embark on this second round of parenting teens, you’d think that we’d be better prepared for an easier experience.  We’ve covered similar territory before. We know what to expect.  Which may be why it feels daunting this time… but for very different reasons. 

Thankfully, what I’ve lost through the years in terms of energy and brain cells, I’ve gained in other areas.  Although this is the section where you might expect the “now we’re wiser and more prepared,” well… here is what is different: This time around, I’m more aware of my selfishness and the reality that I do indeed have a personal agenda.  I’m less sure of the answers, and more curious about the questions.  And most importantly, I have a glimpse of my general tendency to parent out of my own strength and wisdom.  The challenge this time isn’t getting it right.  It’s acknowledging that I can’t.

No doubt, we made a multitude of mistakes the first time around.  And my guess is that we’ll make a whole new batch of mistakes with this second opportunity.  But I’ve come to believe that the goal is not to be the perfect parent, but rather to become a diligent pupil of the Ultimate Teacher.  And in doing so, I hope to slow down and enjoy the scenery of the everyday.  To focus less on the finish line, the adults that we hope our teens will become, and focus more on the gift of each step along the way.  Even the accidental rabbit trails I wouldn't have chosen, unexpected obstacles in the path, and weary muscles are a gift.  They are a necessary part of the process, and will eventually be absorbed into our larger lives’ stories.

As dormant muscles are reawakened, healthier patterns are established, and the initial shock to the system ushers in a “new norm,” my hope is that:
  • I'll be less likely to gauge my progress by the apparent pace of those around me
  • I won’t take one step for granted - even on the hardest of days 
  • I’ll be mindful of the Source of all true wisdom, energy, and direction, and will parent accordingly  
  • I’ll count it an honor and a privilege to run this race… the second time around